What is a sportive?
This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to explain what a sportive is, and I don’t suppose it’ll be the last!
Let’s start with a phrase you’ll become very familiar with if you get into riding sportives. “It’s not a race”. You’ll probably hear this said during the riders’ briefing at the start, followed by a smattering of derisive laughter because, as with any sporting event, some people always treat them as a race and everyone knows that.
On a more serious note though, they’re not races, because using the word “race” for cycling on the road triggers all sorts of legal, health and safety, and insurance issues, which would involve getting the police and local authorities involved and making organising such events prohibitively difficult. If you’re interested in racing on your bike, then sportives are not for you.
Now that we’ve established that a sportive is not a race, what is it? Well I tend to explain them to the un-initiated as long distance cycling events. Sportives are to cyclists what marathons are for runners - long distance challenges. Most people who run marathons are not racing, they’re just trying to complete the distance.
Maybe, one step up from that, they’re trying to beat last year’s time, or their personal best for the distance, but it’s still not a race. A sportive is just like a marathon then, except we’re on two wheels not two legs!
So a sportive is a non-competitive long distance cycling event.
What kind of distances are we talking about though?
Well your average full-length course comes in at around the 100 mile mark. There or thereabouts anyway. However most events have a shorter option too – let’s say 50 or 70 miles - for those who don’t yet feel ready for the full distance or who, for whatever reason, don’t feel like going the distance on the day.
There are sportives to suit everyone.
They take place all over the country, over all sorts of terrains. After a couple of years when there seemed to be a competition on amongst organisers to have the “hardest” event – which usually translated into “hilliest” - the market seems to have settled down a bit, and there’s now a wide variety of events to choose from.
Effectively they’re a great way to see another part of the country, enjoy the unfamiliar scenery and the challenge, without having to look at a map at every junction! You also get to ride in the company of like minded people – from a few hundred of them to a couple of thousand at the very big events. Other people who don’t think you’re mad for spending several hours riding a bike for fun, rather than just to get somewhere.
So what do you get for your entry fee? What makes this better than just going riding somewhere on your own?
Well generally speaking, you get free parking at an HQ with facilities, a well sign-posted route, with marshals and mechanical support, well-stocked feed stations along the route, nice scenery, quiet country roads, and some interesting hills to test yourself against. Most events are timed, though timing comes in many forms – from the simple stopwatch “time you in and out” variety, to high-tech electronic timing tags. Some events have motorcycle outriders, and these days as well as a route card, many also have the route available to download in advance for the gadget of your choice – everyone knows how much cyclists like gadgets!
There are usually photographers on the route too, typically lurking on the worst hills, to capture your smiling (!) face as you slog your way up, and give you the opportunity to purchase a souvenir of the day afterwards.
And when you finally cross the finish line you’ll probably get some form of goody bag, the contents of which vary massively depending on the event, the entry cost, and any sponsors involved. But no-one cycles 100 miles to get a free water bottle or t-shirt, so I think it’s fair to say that the goody bag is more of an added bonus rather than an incentive.
The sportive season runs roughly from March to October – when there are still enough hours of light in the day to complete the distance along with the hope of at least semi-reasonable weather. Having said that there are now some shorter events running through the winter too, so it’s becoming far more of a year round thing.
How many sportives do people do?
How long’s a piece of string? Maybe you set yourself one big goal event to do in the year and spend the whole year training and preparing for that. Maybe you do one a month during the season. There are so many sportives now that if you wanted to you could probably do two a weekend with extras on Bank Holidays. Probably not a good idea on the bank balance or personal relationship front though!
Your first sportive will probably just be about challenging yourself to do the kind of distance you’ve never done before, which is goal enough in itself. Often doing a charity sportive as your first event provides that extra incentive to get the training in and to complete the ride, as well as raising money for a good cause, of course.
After that, once you’ve got the bug, (which you will!), you can work up to riding the longer sportives, or hillier ones, or multi-day events – whatever kind of challenge suits you. The first time you cycle 100 miles in a day comes with a serious sense of achievement – that’s a lot of hours in the saddle!
Whatever kind of event you choose to do, however many or few you want to do in a year, Cyclosport has a comprehensive and invaluable on-line sportive calendar which allows you to research which events you might like to do, with all their relevant vital stats and details, as well as reviews from their riders who’ve actually ridden them, and ratings from other riders who took part.
Courtesy of Cyclosport website - here is a guide to road racing